Tribal Courts Across the Country Are Expanding Holistic Alternatives to the Criminal Justice System
About one-third of the roughly 320 tribal court systems across the country have aspects of this healing and wellness approach, according to the National American Indian Court Judges Association.
Inside a jail cell at Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, Albertyn Pino’s only plan was to finish the six-month sentence for public intoxication, along with other charges, and to return to her abusive boyfriend.
That’s when she was offered a lifeline: An invitation to the tribe’s Healing to Wellness Court. She would be released early if she agreed to attend alcohol treatment and counseling sessions, secure a bed at a shelter, get a job, undergo drug testing and regularly check in with a judge.
Pino, now 53, ultimately completed the requirements and, after about a year and a half, the charges were dropped. She looks back at that time, 15 years ago, and is grateful that people envisioned a better future for her when she struggled to see one for herself.
“It helped me start learning more about myself, about what made me tick, because I didn't know who I was,” said Pino, who is now a case manager and certified peer support worker. “I didn't know what to do.”
The concept of treating people in the criminal justice system holistically is not new in Indian Country, but there are new programs coming on board as well as expanded approaches. About one-third of the roughly 320 tribal court systems across the country have aspects of this healing and wellness approach, according to the National American Indian Court Judges Association.
Some tribes are incorporating these aspects into more specialized juvenile and family courts, said Kristina Pacheco, Tribal Healing to Wellness Court specialist for the California-based Tribal Law and Policy Institute. The court judges association is also working on pilot projects for holistic defense — which combine legal advocacy and support — with tribes in Alaska, Nevada and Oklahoma, modeled after a successful initiative at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.
“The thought and the concept will be different from tribe to tribe,” said Pacheco. “But ultimately, we all want our tribal people ... to not hurt, not suffer.”
People in the program typically are facing nonviolent misdemeanors, such as a DUI, public intoxication or burglary, she said. Some courts, like in the case of Pino, drop the charges once participants complete the program.
A program at the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state applies restorative principles, and assigns wellness coaches to serve Native Americans and non-Natives in the local county jail, a report released earlier this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation outlined. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma has a reintegration program that includes financial support and housing services, as well as cultural programming, career development and legal counsel. In Alaska, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s wellness court helps adults in tribal and state court who are battling substance abuse and incorporates elements of their tribe's culture.
“There’s a lot of shame and guilt when you’re arrested," said Mary Rodriguez, staff attorney for the court judges association. “You don’t reach out to those resources, you feel that you aren’t entitled to those resources, that those are for somebody who isn’t in trouble with the law.”
“The idea of holistic defense is opening that up and reclaiming you are our community member, we understand there are issues,” Rodriguez said. "You are better than the worst thing you’ve done.”
The MacArthur Foundation report outlined a series of inequities, including a complicated jurisdictional maze in Indian Country that can result in multiple courts charging Native Americans for the same offense. The report also listed historical trauma and a lack of access to free, legal counsel within tribes as factors that contribute to disproportionate representation of Native Americans in federal and state prisons.
Advocates of tribal healing to wellness initiatives see the approaches as a way to shift the narrative of someone's life and address the underlying causes of criminal activity.
There isn't clear data that shows how holistic alternatives to harsh penalization have influenced incarceration rates. Narrative outcomes might be a better measure of success, including regaining custody of one's children and maintaining a driver's license, said Johanna Farmer, an enrolled citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and a program attorney for the court judges association.
Some tribes have incorporated specific cultural and community elements into healing, such as requiring participants to interview their own family members to establish a sense of rootedness and belonging.
“You have the narratives, the stories, the qualitative data showing that healing to wellness court, the holistic defense practices are more in line with a lot of traditional tribal community practices,” Farmer said. "And when your justice systems align with your traditional values or the values you have in your community, the more likely you’re going to see better results.”
While not all of these tribal healing to wellness programs have received federal funding, some have.
Between 2020 and 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice distributed more than a dozen awards that totaled about $9.4 million for tribal healing to wellness courts.
This year, the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma started working on a holistic defense program after seeing a sharp increase in cases following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a large area of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation.
So far this year, about 70 cases have been filed, up from nearly a dozen in all of 2020, said Corissa Millard, tribal court administrator.
“When we look at holistic approaches, we think, what’s going to better help the community in long term?” she said. “Is sending someone away for a three-year punishment going to be it? Will they reoffend once they get out? Or do you want to try to fix the problem before it escalates?”
For Pino, the journey through Laguna Pueblo's wellness court wasn't smooth. She struggled through relapses and a brief stint on the run before she found a job and an apartment to live in with her son nearby in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her daughters live close by.
She largely credits the wellness court staff for her ability to turnaround her life, she said.
“They were the ones that stood by me, regardless of what I was choosing to do; that was the part that brought me a lot of hope,” she said. “And now where I’m at, just to see them happy, it gets emotional, because they never let go. They never gave up on me.”
By HALLIE GOLDEN